Going to the dogs in Alaska

If you travel to Alaska, you will find that dog sledding is integral to the way of life. For an antipodean such as myself, who has been brought up on lifestyle of Sun, Surf and Sand, it’s an activity that feels as real as a Disney movie. So when I found myself in Fairbanks in August 2008 and amidst plenty of information promoting dog sledding activities, I thought that it was a good opportunity to step outside the Disney movie and find out more; even if it would be at a tourist level.

Mary Shields with dog (Photo: John Ross)

Alaskan Tails of the Trail with Mary Shields” the brochure read. It sounded like a good way to start. In 1974 Mary Shields was the first women to finish the famous dog sled race, the Iditarod. Her best years in dog sledding are now behind her and today she conducts small tours around her home. You get to meet her dogs, share a cup of tea and listen to stories. It’s all very personal and intimate. When you arrive at Mary’s house, you immediately recognise the attractions. There is her garden, her log cabin with a sod roof. Mary herself and undeniably the main attraction, the dogs. This brings me to myth No 1. Your typical Husky is not a fluffy white blue eyed pin up model. You find those in Disney movies. Instead they are earthy looking dogs, bred for endurance and performance – not looks!

We walk around Mary’s dog corral. Each dog has its own personality one in particular is so shy that she won’t come out of her box. To Mary they are her family and it shows. We learn a lot about the dogs. Some are obedient and others are not, some are dominant and others are submissive. All these traits determine where they are positioned in the dog sled team. We are then shown a sled and how it gets rigged, how the dogs are harnessed, how the sled is driven and what commands are used. This introduces Myth No 2 “mush” is not a command, it is not used when driving the dogs. Mary shows us the tent she takes with her, the internal stove for heating and other bits and pieces that get packed when mushing. One thing she stresses is the need to care for the dogs when out on the trail. Snow and ice can build up between their paws and can cause the skin to crack. Their paws have to be checked and sometimes booties worn to protect them. Packing food for the dogs is critical. Mary describes the special gruel she cooks for them when out on the trail, a concoction that is ultra high in calories. The dogs can burn up to 10,000 calories or more a day. Compare this to a firm 1 hour gym workout on my part where I may get to burn about 700 calories!

As I listen to Mary I ‘m struck by the contrast in our lifestyles. On Saturday morning I see myself going to the garage, throwing a kayak onto the car roof and driving off to the beach. In contrast I see Mary pack her sled, harness her dogs and head down a small trail at the back of her yard through the trees and out into the cold white Alaskan yonder.

A special moment has come in Mary’s tour. Outside the dog corral and out of sight from the dogs she makes us sit down and explains that if we were to start howling, the dogs will pick it up and start howling with us. Mary leads off. The others in our small group follow, a little tentatively at first but soon we are a full on chorus and sure enough coming over the top of us we hear the dogs -it is a ‘goose bump’ moment, I can’t help asking myself “am I bonding here?” Soon Mary stops and we stop and we just sit there listening to the purity and unionism of the dog howls. Mary then says that the dogs will soon stop and adds that she hasn’t quite figured out why but when they do, they will all stop at the same time. True to Mary’s word the howling stops, instantly, not a trailing howl was heard and we are left with Alaskan silence.

Shy dog (Photo:John Ross)

We go inside Mary’s house and sit around a table with a cup of tea. Over the years Mary has accumulated many artefacts, trophies and gifts and we listened to stories of her adventures, people she has met and places she has gone dog sledding.

Soon the tour is over. Back in my hotel room it’s 11:30pm and it’s still daylight outside. I’m lying in bed thinking of a vast pure white snow covered plain and somewhere in the middle is this small image of a dogsled with a solitary figure behind it, led by long team of dogs and gliding silently across the expanse.

There were 17 days left in my tour of Alaska and somewhere in that tour I was going to find time to try dog sledding.

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